Mighty Mopeds

TEXT + PHOTOS: MIKE BLANCHARD

Feature | Years ago I went to the MotoGP race at Laguna Seca. It was the year Nicky Hayden won the race and the world championship. I was invited into the hospitality tent of Cycle World magazine by friends who were connected, and I had an opportunity to talk with the editor. I was introduced as some kind of writer and he asked me to pitch some story ideas in front of his buddies.

The first thing I threw out was a story on mopeds and moped culture. Strike one! The look of contempt his face as he shot down my idea was quite something. It was very dramatic, but it was also the look of a clueless dude rejecting a corner of the motorcycle world he didn’t understand or care to. Bigger and faster are better, and by that virtue command higher social status. Good; let the bottom dwellers make their own world.

…the ride was from midtown Sacramento to the foothill town of Cool 47 miles (as the crow flies but many more on a moped) and 1,500 feet of elevation away.

Again, years ago, seems maybe it was winter cause it was raining in Sacramento, the local club held a rally. It was like a bunch of outlaw bikers came to town. There were some wrecks, a fight or two, some arrests and numerous breakdowns. All weekend you could hear mopeds blazing around in the rain. They were firmly lodged in the conscious and the subconscious. Stuck in the back of the mind as we lounged in the drinking establishments of Midtown like miniature valkyries loudly proclaiming their relevance. Mopeds, hell yes.

I have been fascinated by the people who chose the smaller route in the moto world. What is it? It’s more fun to ride a small bike fast than a big bike slow as the (very) old saw goes, and many a rider has gone that route. But this is America and bigger is better. It is only in the last 20 years or so that smaller has become desirable, as American collectors have discovered small-bore Italian bikes. In the moped world there is a level of dedication and technical prowess that rivals any super-bike builder or vintage-bike freak. 

So when there was a moped rally this summer I had to take it in. Put on by the Land Squids, with some help from the Lost Boys, the ride was from Midtown Sacramento to the foothill town of Cool, 47 miles (as the crow flies but many more on a moped) and 1,500 feet of elevation away. Easily more than 100 miles round trip. The rally included a loose ride and get-together on Friday night, the ride to Cool on Saturday followed by a party and then a short ride on Sunday to finish off the weekend.

 Tobias Lake looking serious with a bunch of mopeds and motorcycles. Dig the Kawi triple lurking at the curb.

Tobias Lake looking serious with a bunch of mopeds and motorcycles. Dig the Kawi triple lurking at the curb.

One of the things you notice right off at a moped rally is a strong sense of community. It seems like everyone knows each other. People hollered out greetings and cheers as riders, in groups or singly, pulled up to the start point, commonly a watering hole of some sort. More than 100 people showed up at a coffee shop to kick off the ride and kinda took over the block for a bit.

Sometimes they were cheering to see a favorite bike as well as its rider. There are mopeds that are kind of famous, for wild engineering or a good turn of speed or as an amazing art piece. People were catching up and checking out bikes and talking mechanics. A few people were smoking grass and everyone was getting wound up on coffee.

Mopeds are not quite as reliable as a modern motorcycle, especially when the bikes are really cranked up.

The moped community is nationwide, and riders travel long distances to attend rallies. In some towns you can pre-order a loaner bike from the club or a shop if you can’t bring your own ped. I met people from L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Reno and some who flew in from Boston. They even have a moped version of the Cannonball cross-country run called the Pinball.

The other thing you notice is that there are a lot of young women. And they are riding their own bikes. Not riding on the back of their old man’s bike but riding, and fixing, their own bikes. Mopeds are not quite as reliable as a modern motorcycle, especially when the bikes are really cranked up. As a result, the dedicated moped rider is frequently on an intimate basis with the arcana of the two-stroke internal combustion engine, carbs, electrical ignition systems, brakes and suspension.

Hot rodding is the name of the game. Some of these bikes will easily move at freeway speeds. In the California Vehicle Code, a moped is defined by, among other things, an engine making not more than two horsepower and capable of traveling no faster than 30 miles an hour. 

But, man being man, the quest for speed is alive and well. This is helped by easy availability of aftermarket speed equipment and a wealth of knowledge online to make full use of it. The guys in Sacto are machining water-cooled conversion kits and exploring squish-band designs, and some are designing and making their own expansion chambers. You know: real engineering stuff. Even on fairly stock bikes, carbs, exhausts and big-bore kits are the order of the day.

There are some attractions to the humble moped. The challenge of the engineering and the search for speed is one. The community and feeling of standing slightly apart might be some others.

There are some attractions to the humble moped. The challenge of the engineering and the search for speed is one. The community and feeling of standing slightly apart might be some others. In California, the fee for registering a moped is $19 lifetime. They are cheap to operate and they get crazy gas mileage so there’s that. For women they are not as big and intimidating as motorcycles. Also, there is generally no shifting. There are a number of two-speed bikes, but many models have only one speed. I am sure the simplicity of the designs is a big attraction for some. The fact that mopeds were such a huge part of ‘70s and ‘80s European youth culture is clearly an attractant. I think also the act of taking something that was the butt of jokes and making it your own outlaw thing and cool as hell has a bit to do with it.

Mopeds have come up in the world for sure. They used to be something you could get for really cheap or “just get it out of my backyard,” but now clean original mopeds can go in the $1,000-$2,000 range, and even desirable non-runners can be pricey. European bikes like Puch, Sachs, Kriedler, Motobecane, Peugeot, Garelli, Derbi, and Piaggio, among many others, are highly sought after. Honda made some good mopeds as well. The Yamaha FS-1 is still a legend in England. Unfortunately, those brands are long gone from the U.S. At the moment, Tomos is the only quality moped being imported into the states.

In Europe the moped form was hugely popular with many weird and wonderful models that never made it to the states. 

There is a level of dedication and technical prowess that rivals any super bike builder or vintage bike freak.

There is a real sense of anticipation of a group adventure at the start of the rally, and at a certain point the organizers began to yell and holler about route maps and rally packs. Gradually there is a critical mass and people start hunting out their bikes and gathering their gear. And then an angry buzzing and braaapping and a cloud of fragrant two-stroke smoke and then we’re off like a wonderfully weird post-apocalyptic swarm.

The first part of the ride is through downtown Sacramento with the usual slew of traffic lights, and as a result the group gets a bit strung out, and five or ten miles down the road the pack is really strung out. People are speeding to catch the pack ahead or dropping back to find a friend who has disappeared. Riders are dropping by the wayside with mechanical issues. People stop to help, but if the problem is terminal there is a sweep truck and trailer. 

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It is common for riders to carry spare parts or small gas cans strapped to the bike, so many times the stoppage is temporary. It is not uncommon for riders to have to pull over more than once to make repairs or adjustments in a run. But generally the well-prepared bike sails through. You may see a rider by the side of the road and then later in the ride they come sailing by.

The swarm engulfs cars and passes around them. Sometimes a bike stalls at a light and there is frantic pushing and pedaling to get going before getting run over by a car. 

Sometimes a bike stalls at a light and there is frantic pushing and pedaling to get going before getting run over by a car.

Because I could only make the first part of the rally I pulled up on the bluff as the riders entered old Fair Oaks. I stopped overlooking a major intersection to take photos and as I looked through the telephoto lens the last rider through the intersection wiped out face first as his bike jumped wildly in the air before crashing down. Being a couple hundred yards away I couldn’t do much but photograph as it happened. Then I went and helped the guy out. Luckily he was not badly hurt. Nothing broken but pretty ground up. Before we could get medical supplies the sweep truck arrived and picked him up. And then they were gone, on up the hill to Cool, and I rode back towards town happy to have been a part of it.

So there you have it: a bit of moped rally for your reading pleasure. When you see one of these riders, take a moment and check out their bike. Take a peek at the moped scene. It’s very cool.

Pileup in Fair Oaks. Nothing broken just some scrapes. The chase truck saved the day and the rider is fine.